Better on Paper: The Ford Nucleon

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Imagine you get into an auto collision. That’s bad enough, right? Then add this element: The car that hits you is nuclear-powered.

Sounds dangerous, right?

That’s part of the reason why Ford’s Nucleon prototype never made it to fruition. The scale model was developed in 1958 to show how a nuclear-powered automobile might look. Thankfully it never went much farther than that.

The main idea was that the car did not have a conventional engine that uses combustion for power. Instead, the Ford Nucleon actually had a small nuclear reactor in the rear of the car and that reactor would create steam using uranium fission to power the car. The propulsion design was very similar to that of a nuclear submarine, where the nuclear part heats up water into steam that turns turbines, then the steam gets condensed back into water and through the cycle again and again.

This design came at a time when nuclear technology was intriguing to scientists and business people alike. It was essentially free power that could be used in myriad situations and the Atomic Age glorified anything that could take the place of coal power, hydroelectric power or even conventional car engines.

The obvious reasons why the car didn’t work were that you can’t have nuclear radioactive material whirring around cities with potential for collisions everywhere. One rear-end accident could turn into a nuclear mess, and with regular people – not trained professionals – driving automobiles, it would put dangerous materials in the hands of people who might not necessarily be smart enough to handle them.

But there were also significant benefits. For one, the car would not emit any gases or vapors. Air pollution due to automobiles would have been significantly reduced had people been driving around in nuclear-powered cars. Also the gas mileage (amount of power it takes to make the car go per mile) would have been significantly less than with traditional fuels. And the nuclear reactor was only going to be about pint-sized. Furthermore, the car would have been just about silent, putting a dent into noise pollution.

In the end, the reason the car never made it to market was that the technology of the time simply couldn’t get a reactor small enough and protect it enough to make the car light enough. Heavy lead shielding around the reactor and bulkier-than-desired reactors made the car impractical for most families to drive around on city streets.

And the final nail in the coffin was that the love affair with nuclear eventually ended as more and more information came out about the dangers of radioactive material. Nuclear waste was a real concern and so as more information came out, fewer thought of the Nucleon as the next best thing.

While it never made it much past concept, there is a mock-up of the car and you can view it at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

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